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Developer puts new life in century-old Gaviota 'ghost' parcels



For the second time, Santa Barbara County and an Orange County investor are preparing to shake hands on the future development of Naples-by-the-Sea, a "ghost" township on the Gaviota coast west of Goleta.

Under the latest proposal, investor Matt Osgood could submit applications to build a maximum of 55 luxury homes at the Santa Barbara Ranch at Naples, placing them on both sides of Highway 101. About 160 acres of the 485-acre property would be permanently set aside for cattle ranching and avocado and lemon orchards; and an additional 20 acres would be reserved for public open space.

On the south side of 101, Mr. Osgood also is proposing to build a public parking lot, a trail to the beach, a coastal trail along the railroad tracks and the freeway, and a campground for bicyclists.

The tentative agreement drawn up by Mr. Osgood and the County Counsel's office would not commit the county to approve any homes at Naples. Rather, it would set in motion a method for reviewing a planned development there.

"We've tried a variety of potential solutions, this one being by far the best," Mr. Osgood said. "From the beginning, I've tried to recognize the land's heritage and rural integrity. I'm hopeful that people will be appreciative that we've come forth with a plan that will set aside a lot of open space. When you drive 101, you'll be hard-pressed to see any of the homes."

On Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors is expected to set a March 19 hearing date on the proposed agreement. The County Counsel's office is recommending approval of the document, officially called a memorandum of understanding.

"It's a fallacy to believe that no private development can occur at Naples," said Alan Seltzer, chief deputy county counsel. "Naples is not public property. It's not a park. The goal of the proposed MOU (memorandum) is to provide for a process that would best harmonize development at Naples with preservation of the Gaviota coast."

For nearly 20 years, the county and the Morehart family of Carpinteria, the original owners of Naples, have been embroiled in a dispute over the family's development rights, based on the validity of a subdivision map drawn up by land speculators in 1888. The antiquated map delineates hundreds of small lots, but the area was never developed: The township exists only on paper. Historically, the property has been a cattle ranch.

In making the proposal public this week, the County Counsel's office warned that if a comprehensive plan cannot be drawn up for Naples, the county would be unable to stop piecemeal, lot-by-lot development there.

"Rejection of all development at Naples could pose serious legal and financial implications," the County Counsel's staff report states.

Years ago, county attorneys tried to force the Moreharts to merge their lots in accordance with modern-day zoning, which allows only agricultural uses and only five homes at Naples. Courts ruled in favor of the Moreharts.

The county then officially recognized 233 legal lots on the property, but, because of health and safety restraints and environmental concerns, could not guarantee the owners' right to build on all of them. Two more lawsuits are now pending, in which the family claims the right to build more than 400 homes at Naples, based on the old maps.

Mr. Osgood, a resident of Corona del Mar, owns 265 acres of Naples and is planning to buy the rest from the Moreharts this year. As part of his proposed agreement with the county, the lawsuits would be dropped and all future claims to additional lots renounced.

"We're kind of laying down our weapons," Mr. Osgood said. "We know we could go out and get a lot more if we went to war, but we're willing to go through this process and do what we think is right."

This is the second time that the county and Mr. Osgood have come to the negotiating table. In late 1999, the board signed an agreement allowing him to submit applications for up to 88 homes on the north side of 101 at Naples, with the understanding that he would sell the south side, about 222 acres, to a land trust. A few months later, however, that deal fell through. The county declined to guarantee ultimate approval of all 88 homes; and a potential buyer for the south side of 101 backed out.

On Friday, representatives for the Gaviota Coast Conservancy and Environmental Defense Center, two groups that support the preservation of the coast from Coal Oil Point to Point Sal, said they had not seen the proposed agreement and could not comment on it. This summer, the National Park Service is expected to release a study recommending that the Gaviota coast be included in the national park system.

Under the terms of the latest proposal, the county would consider approving a special rezone, applicable only to Naples, allowing up to 55 homes, including the home that Mr. Osgood already has built on the north side of 101. The rezone would provide for public trails and access to the beach on the south side of 101.

Approximately 160 acres of the property would be reserved for farming and ranching; and 20 acres would be designated as public open space for trails, a parking lot and a bicycle campground. A management plan also would be drawn up for 70 acres of private open space around the homes.

Thirty-nine of the homes -- 16 on the south side of 101 and 23 on the north side -- would be subject to the rezone. The state Coastal Commission would have the final say over this part of the project. Plans for the remaining 16 homes on the northernmost boundary of Naples would be reviewed by the county zoning administrator.